50 Middle Grade Titles by January, 2019: Stella Díaz Has Something to Say by Angela Dominguez

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I’ve been seeing Stella Díaz Has Something to Say for a while on our library shelves and I’ve been meaning to read it for two reasons: One, I find the cover super cheerful and adorable and two, the only non-English language taught in my school is Spanish, and I knew that this title is sprinkled with a lot of it. At first glance at this book, I assumed that this title was just a bit of fluff (which is fine and necessary!), but it’s actually got a lot of depth.

Stella Díaz Has Something to Say, to me, was really a title about the urge to belong and find one’s place in a community (in this case, the community being school). While Stella’s school days aren’t totally comfortable, as she sometimes experiences anxiety while speaking English (and sometimes Spanish, as well), she always has the support of her best friend, Jenny. This year, however, Jenny is assigned to another class and Stella starts to feel very lonely. Add bully Jessica Anderson to the mix, who makes fun of Stella when she struggles with language, and Stella has become very isolated at school.

Stella came to the United States when she was a baby, and has no memory of Mexico (other than second-hand recollections from her mother, brother, and other extended family), which is why she’s surprised when she discovers in class one day that she’s technically a resident or legal alien, meaning someone who, “can stay here as long as they want, but they don’t have as many rights as citizens” and that “after you’ve been a resident for a while you can apply to be a citizen.” The word “alien” is a shock to Stella’s system, making her feel even more out-of-place: “I don’t fit in, Mom,” she thinks, “I am different from the people in my class. I’m an alien.

But, of course, this is middle grade literature, so Dominguez delivers a happy, hopeful ending. Stella makes new friends and bonds with her classmates over her true passion, marine life. She still struggles with a bit of social anxiety, especially when interacting with new-kid Stanley, but, with the gentle encouragement of her mother, she finds a way to make connections.

Stella’s family is the high point of this chapter book, as her relationship with her mother and brother, Nick, is so warm, affirming, and cozy. Though her father is sort of an absent and unreliable figure, which is explored a bit later in the title, the Díaz home is a source of stability and comfort for Stella. Here, she is accepted, loved, and never has to worry about how good her English or Spanish is.

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Above, you see the flier that I update for our library bulletin board. I like to change it up as often as possible, especially with titles that are good for our third and fourth graders. For one of the last books, it actually worked! Two students who hardly ever ask for books said, “I want the book from the board.” It’s definitely motivated me to keep switching the titles out.

For my next books, I’m on the hunt for short, accessible titles that aren’t part of a series. If you have any recommendations for third or fourth grade literature with POC protagonists, preferably published in the last three years, that’s high-interest/low level and/or on the short side, I’d love to know about it!

♥ Ingrid

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50 Middle Grade Titles by January, 2019: Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes

Ever since I was lucky enough to see Jewell Parker Rhodes speak at a publisher’s preview about her book Ninth Ward in around 2010, I have been a huge fan of hers and everything she’s written. I’ve read both her children’s and adult titles, and I’ve never been disappointed in her writing. From Bayou Magic to her Marie Laveau trilogy, I find her style warm, lyrical, and engaging.

There is a title of hers I hers I have been avoiding, however, despite its popularity at my last school: Towers Falling. Yes, I am one of many New Yorkers who was here on 9/11 and prefers not to talk about it. While I was a public librarian, I remember that every early September, children would approach the reference desk asking me to share my “New York 9/11 story” with them. That’s when I came to the realization that, while, for me, September 11, 2001 felt like it had just happened, most of the children I worked with at the library were too young to have remembered it (of course, now, I only work with children who hadn’t even been born yet). In fact, many of these young patrons’ parents hadn’t been living in the country at the time, so their public librarian became the default interviewee. I remember both hating to drudge out my same old sad story, year after year, while also thinking it was important and vital to share these memories with young people who really had no concept of what that day was like.

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As I said, despite being a big JPR fan, I was hesitant to read Towers Falling because I simply did not want to rehash that day. In fact, in the author’s note, Rhodes says that it was never her intention to write about 9/11: She found the subject, “Too hard emotionally. Too hard, technically, to convey such history for middle grade students.” Luckily, for those reluctant to relive that day, Rhodes sets the novels 15 years after the event, while still managing to give readers a sense of what 9/11 was like.

When fifth grader Déjà starts learning about the towers in class, she can’t figure out why she should care: It happened long ago to people she didn’t even know. Through lessons from her teacher, Miss Garcia, about connections and community, and discussions with her new friends, Ben and Sabeen, Déjà begins to understand how the attack on New York has changed her neighborhood, school, and even her own family.

Continue reading “50 Middle Grade Titles by January, 2019: Towers Falling by Jewell Parker Rhodes”

Booktalking George, by Alex Gino: It kind of takes a village

When I started this blog, I was a public librarian with a clear mission for what I wanted to write about here. Now that I’m a school librarian who is settling into a whole new work culture, it’s become less apparent to me what I’m supposed to talk about on this blog, except to say, “This is really different from my last job and sometimes it feels like I have no idea what I am doing.” Though I have been a school librarian for almost 6 months, it somehow only feels like a couple of days. The newness has not worn off yet. Hence, the lack of blog posts.

I thought I would talk about how George, by Alex Gino, became a project that much of our Upper School became involved in: 2 sixth grade classes, me (the librarian), several teachers, and the school psychologist. It all started when the 5th and 6th grade teachers asked me to present some booktalks to their classes. First, I asked if I could include books that acknowledged the existence of gay and trans* people. This is what I mean when I say that I’m adjusting to a new work culture. I would have never asked if this was OK at the public library. It would never even occurred to me to do so. It was never an issue there, a place where I was heavily protected by the First Amendment and an environment that supported freedom of information. Schools, especially independent schools, are trickier places to navigate, especially for us rah-rah liberal librarians, and I felt compelled to ask permission. Luckily, the teachers were open to my book selections.

I presented several titles: Fake Mustache by Tom Angleberger, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (which none of them had really read, oddly enough. I know this is an obvious choice), Better Nate than Ever by Tim FederleThe Marvels by Brian Selznick (I showed this trailer), The Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (another older title they hadn’t read), and George by Alex Gino. While we saw increased circulation on all the titles, George generated the most discussion. I couldn’t keep a copy on the shelves and students were constantly asking when they could get their hands on it.

Here’s how I booktalk George: I say that it’s funny that the book is called George, because it’s actually about a girl named Melissa. Melissa gets home from school every day and does some pretty stereotypically “girly” things: She reads magazines written for girls, puts on lip gloss, and combs her bangs down over her face. However, before her mom and brother come home, she must fix her hair, clean her face, and put the magazines back in their hiding place. You see, while Melissa has always known she is a girl, her family sees her as a boy named George.

This last line usually elicits a good deal of confusion, so I ask that if I said Melissa was trans, would they know what this means? When Melissa was born, she was assigned the male gender, but she never identified as such. The teachers and I found that while the students were certainly curious about trans* people, their only exposure to a trans person is Caitlyn Jenner. And while I’m grateful to Caitlyn for giving the students some sort of access point to discuss this topic, she’s certainly not the default experience.

When talking to the class, I referred to the author, Alex Gino, with the pronoun “they“. I explained that beyond she/her and he/him, there are a myriad of other pronouns, including they/them. I quickly realized that they had never heard of anything like this before. Caitlyn Jenner has exposed them to the idea of transitioning from one end of the gender binary to the other, but otherwise, they had no concept of people who exist in the middle (or outside the gender binary altogether).

I thought the booktalks would sort of be a one-off deal, but conversations around George kept sprouting up around the library and the classrooms. Students were asking me if I had anything else like George (I don’t, outside of a copy of Beyond Magenta in the inaccessible professional collection). I mentioned to Alex on Twitter that our students were obsessed with George and they suggested that we have a little Skype session to discuss how that was going. I appreciated this, as talking to kids about the book and trans-related issues was way harder than I had anticipated. They had questions and I had answers (or at least I thought I did), but how were we going to tackle all this in the limited time I, as the librarian, have with students?

Continue reading “Booktalking George, by Alex Gino: It kind of takes a village”

I AM READING THIS SO HARD RIGHT NOW: Three Picture Books You Need for Your Collection This Very Second

After my first go-round on the Rainbow List, one of my major complaints was that we weren’t receiving many picture book submissions (I believe we only got two last year, and out of those, only one had LGBTQ content. It was a bummer). I was also dissatisfied with the number of books that featured People of Color. It seemed that way too many titles revolved around white, cisgendered men. I was yearning for more protagonists that were black or Asian or Latino or…anything.

Well, someone heard my prayers, because I have been blessed with three offerings that have restored my faith in picture books (for a while, anyway. I’ll be fussy by as soon as next month). If they’re not on your radar, I insist you order them right now. Your collection desperately needs these titles. If you don’t think you have LGBTQ folks in your neighborhood, you’re wrong. Even if that were the case, we owe it to the children and families that frequent our libraries to have rich, diverse collections. Hey, everyone, #weneeddiversebooks.

I have to be honest, I was wary of another “boy in a dress” book. Our library has a few of them with varying quality and appeal. Sometimes I feel that featuring a boy in a dress is talking around homosexuality/queerness/trans-ness instead of about it. But, with weekly stories about kids being kicked out of school (Or reprimanded. Or shamed) due to their manner of dress, apparently books like this are still very much needed, though possibly more for the world’s adults more than the children.

Morris Micklewhite and the Tangerine Dressby Christine Baldacchino, is indeed a “boy in a dress book”, but its dreamy illustrations help it stand out from the others. It’s super lush and beautiful. By the end of the read, you’ll be wanting to live in Morris’ world of cats and elephants and spaceships. Plus, his dress looks like orange cotton candy.

Morris and his tangerine cloud of a gown.
Morris and his tangerine cloud of a gown.
I want to be part of his world.
I want to be part of his world.

Not Every Princess exists in sort of the same vein as Morris Micklewhite, in that it tackles gender identity and gender presentation. While Morris has a plot and dialogue, Not Every Princess simply introduces us to a number of children who see no limits to how they experience life. Gender stereotypes are not talked about explicitly. Instead, the reader is simply told that girls can be tough and boys can be gentle and vice versa. Some princesses are strong. Some knights are kind. Traditional gender roles don’t prevent us from being our fully realized selves.

Not Every Princess features one of the most diverse casts of characters I’ve seen in a long time. I adore the sweet faces on all these children:

As a children's librarian, I see a lot of cute every day. I'm practically immune to cute. These kids are next level adorable!
As a children’s librarian, I see a lot of cute every day. I’m practically immune to cute. These kids are next level adorable!

Continue reading “I AM READING THIS SO HARD RIGHT NOW: Three Picture Books You Need for Your Collection This Very Second”

#WeNeedDiverseBooks. We always did and we always will.

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When I was a just a tiny little kiddo, either my mom or my grandmother introduced me to Alice for the Very Young, which is sort of a Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with training wheels. Just one look at the cover and I was hooked for life. Alice was young and pale and blonde, just like me. I wanted to be just like her and, in some ways, I already felt like I was her. Alice remains my literary buddy to this day. In tough times, she is my rock and my safe space. I go to her when I am not OK. Decades after picking this book up for the first time, she’s still there when I feel lost or out-of-place or just plain sad.

This is my somewhat convoluted way of saying that it didn’t take much to get me hooked on reading. All I needed was a drawing of a girl that shared a couple of similar features with me, and I was in it for life. Not only did Alice help me gravitate towards “big kid” books (in droves!), but she showed me that little girls like me could be smart and brave and clever. If Alice could persevere in complicated situations, then so could I.

If you see it, you can be it. If you can’t see it…

Do you see what I’m saying here? It is *so* powerful to read a book and look at a character and say, “That could be me. I could do that.”

This is why I am delighted by the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, which you can read all about here. As a white child with blonde hair, the truth is, I could see myself represented in a multitude of books and TV shows and movies and magazines. Popular culture has always included people like me (though, now that I’m plus-sized, I’m a little harder to find, but that’s a whole other deal). I’ve never really had to worry about whether or not I belong. It’s always sort of been implied.

However, when a parent at the library tells me that their multi-ethnic daughter is feeling bad about the way she looks, I find myself having to scrounge around in the stacks to find a picture book featuring a bi-racial child. Yes, these books exist, but not in large numbers.

When I’m searching for a middle-grade book with a black protagonist, the options shouldn’t be only historical fiction titles concerning slavery or civil rights. How about a modern day boy in a realistic setting? Or a fantasy book? Or sci-fi? How about some choices?

How come Park from Eleanor and Park is one of the few Asian protagonists in popular young adult literature? (Not to mention that his Eleanor is one of the very few fat girl-protagonists YA lit has to offer).

When I review books for the Rainbow List, why am I not totally inundated with titles? Why isn’t my mailbox completely overflowing with novels and picture books and comics and non-fiction? Why am I not faced with an insurmountable mountain of eligible books? Where are the queer protagonists for teens and, especially, children? And out of these Rainbow List titles, why is the T in LGBTQ hardly ever represented? Why am I meant to believe that Queer POC don’t exist? And why do most covers feature a white, middle- to upper-middle class cis-boy? Where are the female and female-identified characters?

Why does popular, mainstream culture want me to believe that the default human being is a white, straight, cis-gendered man that the rest of us are just supposed to magically identify with?

I encourage you to head on over to We Need Diverse Books‘s Tumblr, as well as the #weneeddiversebooks hashtag on Twitter. Partcipate, retweet, reblog. Let’s keep this stuff trending!

Before I go, I want to leave you with some of the fantastic pictures from the incredible people at Oakland Library (I’ve always considered them to be Brooklyn’s sister city, is that OK?). This isn’t a contest to see who can take the best pictures, but I have to say that Oakland is winning in the best way possible:

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Check out their Twitter feed right now, because it’s rad.

What would a world with more diverse books mean to you or the patrons and young people you serve?

~Love and Libraries, Ingrid

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